5 Ways Judaism Honors Mothers.
Mothers are honored all year round in Jewish tradition.
Mothers are central to Jewish life, and Jewish tradition is full of concrete ways we honor mothers. Here are five ways Judaism honors mothers – on Mother’s Day, and every day of the year.
Heroic Jewish Mothers
Throughout the Torah and Jewish literature, mothers stand out as key figures who enabled Judaism and the Jewish people to survive.
Each Passover, we remember the Jewish midwives in ancient Egypt who, on pain of death, defied Pharaoh’s order to kill all Jewish baby boys and throw them into the Nile. We recall the matriarchs – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah – who molded and created the Jewish people. Hauntingly, the Torah describes that our matriarch Rachel is charged with pleading on behalf of the Jewish people in the World to Come: “A voice is heard on high, wailing, bitter weeping, Rachel weeps for her children” (Jeremiah 31:14); it is her merit that we returned from exile, intact and whole and continued Jewish life.
The Torah recounts that time and again, it was Jewish women, often mothers, who stood up for what was right. In our darkest days of slavery in Egypt, Jewish men began to despair: what was the point of getting married and building Jewish families, when their children would only suffer in slavery as they did? It was Jewish wives and mothers who came to the rescue: day after day, after hours of backbreaking work, these women found the energy to dress beautifully and carve out time with their husbands, making space for family life and ensuring the survival of future generations of the Jewish people. Later, when some Jews built a golden calf to worship in the desert, again it was the Jewish women who resisted, maintaining their belief in God alone.
King Solomon described all of Jewish tradition as emanating from our mothers: “Do not forsake the Torah of your mother” (Proverbs 1:8). Throughout history, it’s Jewish mothers who’ve instilled Jewish knowledge and a love of being Jewish in their children, and our tradition recognizes this profound truth.
A Woman of Valor
Each Friday night, Jews around the world recite a beautiful poem at the Shabbat table, Eishet Chayil (“A Woman of Valor”). Written by King Solomon, this is the ultimate tribute to the Jewish people and our relationship with God.
Eishet Chayil describes an ideal woman and her relationships with her friends and family, neighbors, husband and children. Jewish tradition teaches that it is also allegorical: this idealized mother is none other than the people of Israel. King Solomon wrote the poem as a paean to his own mother Batsheva, and it’s infused with love and admiration. In describing the ideal woman and mother, we are painting a picture of the qualities we most want in ourselves.
In my own family, my husband started a unique family tradition at our Shabbat table. Before we sing Eishet Chayil, he first asks each of our kids to name three things Mom did for them that week. It’s a fun exercise and sets a tone of gratitude and appreciation that lasts far beyond Friday dinner. It also helps them realize that the woman of valor we sing about shares many qualities with real life mothers: she is charitable, she’s hardworking, she takes care of her family. “Her children rise up and call her blessed with happiness; also her husband, and he praises her” we sing. (Proverbs 31:28) It’s a beautiful moment that underscores Judaism’s reverence of moms.
The Ten Commandments tell us to treat parents with respect. The Torah repeats this timeless injunction with two different word choices. In Exodus, we’re instructed “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). In Leviticus God commands “You shall fear your mother and your father” (Leviticus 19:3). Traditionally, Jewish thought has interpreted this to mean that there are certain key obligations we have to “honor” our parents and others to “fear” them.
“Fearing” our parents means not being rude to them. This might sound like common sense, but it’s a refreshing change from some behaviors that modern parents are dealing with. Jewish tradition stipulates concrete steps: children aren’t to call parents by their first names. If parents have an accustomed seat that everyone knows is theirs, we’re not allowed to sit in it. We’re not to do anything that might embarrass our parents.
The commandment to “honor” our parents has its own specific advice. We are to help our parents: bringing them food and drinks, standing in respect when we encounter them, and helping them in material ways. We are to talk about them in ways that enhance their dignity and avoid dwelling on their shortcomings when we talk to our friends and others.
For moms these days, these ancient instructions are particularly refreshing. One 2005 poll found that nearly 70% of Americans felt that people were ruder than a generation ago – and kids were ranked the least courteous and respectful of all. A 2002 study found that only 9% of Americans felt the children they saw acted “respectfully” towards adults. For parents caught in the crosscurrents of raising courteous kids in a discourteous age, Judaism’s tried-and-true rules for respecting parents can be a big help. It might seem restrictive at first to be told we can’t roll our eyes and complain about our parents when we’re fed up, but trying to live up to the Jewish ideal of honoring our parents can help us grow and become more sensitive – and can help send a powerful message to our children about compassion and respect.
Honoring Parents Continues After Death
In Judaism, our obligation to honor our mothers and fathers never ends. The injunctions to speak respectfully about our parents, to honor them and burnish their memories continues even after our parents are no longer in this world. It’s customary to refer to parents who are no longer living with the Jewish phrase “of blessed memory”, and to perform acts of Jewish learning and charitable actions in their memories.
Mothers as Partners with God
In Jewish thought, motherhood isn’t only raising a child; it’s being partners with the Divine. The Talmud teaches that “there are three partners in (creating) a man: the Holy One, blessed be He, his father and his mother” (Niddah 31a). (The Talmud specifies that this includes adoptive parents too, not only biological parents.) The moment of giving birth is compared to the creation of the world: both are awesome miracles and times of intense holiness.
When we name our children, the Talmud explains that mothers (and fathers too) receive a measure of prophecy in order to choose the right name for their particular child (Brachot 57b). It’s a different way of looking at parenthood: not only raising children, but doing so in a way that brings sanctity and spirituality into the world.
This Mother’s Day, amid the flowers and gifts and celebrations, try carving out time to incorporate some of these traditional Jewish mindsets and ways to honor our mothers, as well. Doing so can enhance the ways we look at our moms and approach motherhood – and can make the time we spend with our mothers extra special and meaningful.